O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing

 

                          John Wesley preaching

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the brother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley, wrote this hymn, along with 6,000 others, including such favorites as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending.”  In 1726, upon entering Oxford University, Charles felt the need for a stronger devotional life; shortly thereafter he formed the “Holy Club,” a group at Oxford who would meet together to study the Bible and to do good works methodically—according to a schedule not unlike many ministries today. The club, later taken over by Charles’ brother John, would be called derisively “Methodist” by their opponents.  In fact, neither John nor Charles (who remained in the Church of England until death) sought to break away from the Established Church; like Luther, they sought only to restore evangelical fervor to the Church and to encourage proper morality and ethics, which presumably had become subsumed to doctrinal concerns and polity debates. St Paul writes in I Tim. 6: 3:4 warns us against prideful arrogance of our presumed knowledge: “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” The Wesleys were concerned about the “morbid craving for controversy” which they perceived in the churchmanship of the day. This is a difficult topic—while it is arguably not a good idea for a Christian to nitpick the finer points of theology, they also must know firmly what they believe. Who is Christ? What did He come to do? How is my salvation secured? These are all important questions which necessarily lead to theologizing. Neither the Wesleys nor certainly the Apostle Paul intended people to believe whatever they feel compelled. Their beliefs and consciences should be formed by scripture and hence the Holy Spirit. As hymnwriters, both John and Charles Wesley sought to infuse doctrine with human feeling. What is our reaction to our salvation? We can use the words of the sixth stanza: “Glory to God and praise and love be now and ever given by saints below and saints above, the Church in earth and heaven.”

This hymn was written in 1738, on the anniversary of Charles Wesley’s conversion experience.  (He had been baptized as a child, attended seminary, but did not feel salvation until 1737!)  Whatever we might make of this, we can certainly ascertain that Wesley’s virtually-unrestrained enthusiasm well reflects Psalm 96: 2, “Sing to the Lord, proclaim His salvation day after day.”  Wesley sings of the “triumph of His grace,” prevenient grace being a theme for Wesley, as that grace of the Holy Spirit which calls us to salvation before such time as we might make a “decision.”  In the second stanza, he asks “my gracious master and my God, assist me to proclaim,” recognizing that even praise, not to mention good works, is a “. . . gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”  (Ephesians 2: 9)  In the third stanza we read from whence the old cliché arises, “Music to my ears.”  Wesley says that it is “Jesus,” a more intimate and familiar form of address than, say, “Christ,” who is “music to the sinner’s ear.”  Before repeating the theme of grace in the fifth stanza, Wesley refers to Christ’s blood making “the foulest clean;  His blood avails for me.”  Neither of the Wesleys feared using “blood language,” of which we moderns are so reticent.  We tend to shy away from the rugged blood language, as uncomfortable as it makes us, but in which we are reminded that our joyous Easter praises can only be earned through the blood and sufferings of Christ Jesus.

When singing this hymn, consider how Charles Wesley seeks to imbue those crucial doctrines of the Christian faith with an exuberance which one cannot help but sing.